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The Strand’s owner pleads with LPC to keep ‘red tape’ away from building

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Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of the famed bookstore, wants to keep her building from being landmarked

David Bowie Remembered Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images

The owner and devotees of iconic Manhattan bookstore the Strand on Tuesday carried out their latest attempt at fending off a proposed landmarking of its building, making the case that the business that made 826 Broadway notable will suffer if the proposal is rubber stamped by city officials.

Following months of a higher-profile-than-usual public debate on the matter—thanks to the Strand’s appearances in movies, celebrity frequenters and tony location—the Landmarks Preservation Commission for the second time fielded public comments on a proposal to protect the 11-story structure, a move that has drawn the ire of the bookstore’s (and building’s) owner, Nancy Bass Wyden.

Wyden, joined by dozens of supporters, said at the nearly two-hour hearing that the rich history of the third-generation family business at 826 Broadway, not just the building, needs to be taken into consideration when deciding if the store would be subject to “a lifetime of needless red tape.”

The building was constructed in 1902 and has been home to the bookstore since 1927, when Wyden’s grandfather, Benjamin Bass, opened it. Designating it as a landmark, according to Wyden, would place a burden on the store by requiring her to dedicate time and resources to navigate bureaucratic processes, thus hindering her ability to run the store and putting the employment of the more than 230 who work there in jeopardy.

“We operate on thin margins in a fragile economic environment,” said Wyden, referring to the recent decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Wyden noted the commission considered designating the building as a landmark in the 1980s, but opted not to; she wondered how it was possible the building had changed since then. In lieu of landmark protection, Wyden proposed applying a “preservation easement,” a less restrictive measure, which she said applied to the facade and was popular with preservationists.

Sarah Carroll, the commission’s chair, seemed to throw cold water on the idea following the testimony, saying the move was not something the commission has in the past looked favorably upon, but said the commission would take it into consideration.

Council Member Carlina Rivera, who represents the area, testified in favor of the proposal, citing neighborhood preservationists’ calls for the landmarking and a New York Times piece arguing in favor of it. She attempted to quell concerns about repercussions for a landmarking, saying the LPC assured her the store will not face burdensome “delays or hurdles” if it is landmarked.

“The Strand bookstore is the last vestige of the former ‘book row,’ and there is no question it represents an integral part of our local history,” she said.

Tuesday’s hearing comes after an initial December 4 meeting when the LPC heard input on landmarking the building. After the August approval of a rezoning that allowed the 21-story Union Square tech training center to rise, the preservationist group Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation proposed landmarking 193 nearby buildings as part of an effort to thwart an onslaught of large-scale development. The LPC narrowed the list down to seven buildings directly south of Union Square, including 826 Broadway.

Andrew Berman, the executive director of GVSHP, made the case that, while 826 Broadway is worthy of landmark designation, the LPC should broaden the buildings being considered. According to Berman, there are “dozens of equally, if not more, significant buildings” south of Union Square, so designating 826 Broadway and the six other buildings is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed. He said the seven buildings had been “cherry pick[ed]” and expressed frustration the city had not offered to implement “protections” to mitigate what he says are the likely effects of the tech hub.

Additionally, Berman said there are several other buildings in the area that “face a much realer threat right now” than the Strand. (Notably, the building stands taller than existing zoning of the lot would allow, making it unlikely a buyer would demolish and redevelop it.)

For her part, Andrea Goldwyn of New York Landmarks Conservancy said the “distinguished” building “well represents the history and architecture of Manhattan just south of Union Square.”

“826 [Broadway] clearly merits designation for its architecture,” she said. “It features intact Renaissance Revival facades of limestone and brick with rich terra-cotta detail.”

Opponents of the landmark designation, who outnumbered its proponents at the hearing, extolled the virtues of the Strand, described their personal connection to the store, and pleaded with the commission to trust Wyden’s premonition that landmark status would adversely affect the business.

“The Strand is a special place,” said Columbia professor and longshot public advocate candidate David Eisenbach, who noted he normally favors landmarking and that the Strand is what makes the building noteworthy. “If you pass this designation, it jeopardizes this historic business.”

Eddie Sutton, who has worked at the Strand for 28 years, defended the family’s “stewardship” of the building, and said the store’s leadership would rather not consult with LPC on making any changes to it.

“With all its expertise,” he said, “the LPC does not have—and what Nancy and all of the 230 employees of Strand, along with our tenants and publishers and customers and readers do have—is skin in the game.”

As of Tuesday, no vote on the proposal had yet been taken or scheduled.